Sunday, February 10, 2013

Oshogatsu: New Year's Dishes With Chanto

The night before the Oshogatsu party that Jolene and her brigade of mom friends from El Marino Language School held in early January, I found her frantically mashing yellow satsuma-imo and chestnuts in a pot. She then began to puree them - by hand - forcing them through a fine metal sieve with a plastic rice paddle. The end result was an attractive dish of kurikinton, a traditional New Year dish that with its golden hue, symbolizes prosperity.

Jolene uses a sieve to make the
kurikinton as smooth as we hope
the New Year will be.

"It's not Japanese cooking unless you've kicked your ass five times to make it," she said, not without a touch of irony as she toiled.

Over the last decade and more, Jolene's connection to Japanese culture through her marriage to Hiro, and now, through her sons and the families of their friends at school, has made the fare at gatherings that much more Martha-esque (or Harumi-esque, depending on where you live). Her cooking and hostessing skills have been elevated as well as culturally enriched in terms of presentation, tastes, and subtlety.

Watching my sister cook and knowing what she and her fellow Moms turn out daily in their respective kitchens, is a lesson in what Japanese Americans call "chanto," or self-discipline. Being ten minutes early for any appointment or always having change for the parking meter are forms of chanto. Using hand tools to do what a food processor does is Chanto 2.0.

Kurikinton, topped with chunks of sweet golden chestnuts,
signifies wealth.

That being said, it stands to reason that the delicacies that are served to celebrate Japanese New Year require unusual ingredients not used in everyday Japanese cooking, and are laboriously prepared, fortunately, only once a year. The feast we enjoyed on January 6 (the holiday is celebrated anywhere between Jan. 1 and 4, but we're not that chanto) was, happily, a modern abbreviation of a meal that usually takes days to prepare.

Tomoe led the feast as mistress of the o-zoni, the traditional soup served at New Year celebrations, topped with the infamous cakes of fresh mochi. Great caution must be taken when eating ozoni, particularly by the elderly or by children, who can easily choke on the sticky, gooey rice cake. Our mochi, another homemade marvel thanks to Tomoe and her Volkswagen-sized mochi maker, was cut into safely navigable pieces. Anna and I were fascinated by the way it puffed up when toasted, and tended batches of it in the toaster oven, squealing with glee at the pillowy, crispy cakes.

Rollin' in dough: Nothing says "Happy New Year"
like fresh mochi.
Another example of chanto has to be the fresh tamago that Tomoe was cooking throughout the meal. Cooking a thin layer of omelette while simultaneously rolling it into a log in a tiny rectangular pan takes not only a lot of skill, but infinite patience. It is among my favorite Japanese comfort foods, and reminds me of the crepe-like sweet omelette filled with grape jelly that our Dad used to make, except that there's no jelly in tamago. It is just a marvel of very simple ingredients - eggs, rice vinegar, and a little sugar or soy sauce - cooked to perfection, and eaten at flavor's peak.

The rest of the meal was a cornucopia of traditional Japanese osechi-ryori and various world cuisines. On the buffet table were Amy's Thai beef curry, Anna's famous coconut milk tapioca pudding, a Spanish sweet made with almonds called turron, and Yayoi's presentation of a jubako, a tiered lacquer box filled with traditional Japanese foods served to welcome a healthy and prosperous New Year. There was also an unexpected treat, a "dip" that Judy kept warm in a Crock Pot, that earned for her our undying worship as a culinary goddess. While the name "Hot Crab Salad" might be more reminiscent of a 1970s Southern rock group, it actually makes a better hors d'oeuvre. We enjoyed eating scoops of it on top of hot, fluffy rice. A good, buttery cracker or slices of toasted baguette would work nicely too.
Tomoe puts all her eggs - and concentration - in one basket
with her amazingly light and carefully created tamago.

Judy graciously parted with the recipe and few days later, the coveted formula was in our email inboxes. The scan of a handwritten recipe was labeled, "From the kitchen of Watanabe," a family friend. It was charmingly related in the kitchen shorthand that only expert cooks and busy recipe-sharing moms can decipher. I will insert some descriptives in brackets, but here is - in verbatim, the originally penned formula:

Hot Crab Salad

Bake 350 at 45 minutes

1 kamaboko (package of Japanese fish cake)
13 shrimp
8 imitation crab (this means 8 sticks of surimi, not 8 actual crabs, as I had thought!)
2 c. Napa (cabbage)
1 t. pepper
1 potato
1 egg (raw)
1 c. celery
1 c. onion
2 c. mayonnaise

Dice (all ingredients) w/pepper & and mayonnaise. Put in casserole dish. Sprinkle paprika and bake.

At Oshogatsu, most of us ate the Hot Crab Salad on top of rice, like a fluffy and oceanic souffle. In retrospect, crackers or slices of toasted baguette would be good too. What made it stand out, I think, was that it was different from most of the food. While the menu was far from the fare at a traditional Oshogatsu, our collective dishes tended toward an ethnic theme. Judy attributed the unabashed luxury of Hot Crab Salad and its appropriation of a non-Asian ingredient like mayonnaise, to its Hawaiian origins.
The groaning board at Oshogatsu.Clockwise
from left:Thai beef curry, renkon no sunomono,
osechi-ryori rice, and Hot Crab Salad.

Hawaiian cuisine combines influences from indigenous culture, immigrants from throughout Asia, and the islands' European colonizers, to create food traditions that are an idealization of what America is at its best: perhaps not a melting pot where individuals are obliterated into a mainstream, but where they create the mainstream.

Ethnic and cultural differences are not always smoothly navigated (see this book trailer on Sarah Vowell's "Unfamiliar Fishes" - really, it illustrates my point!). However, the preparation and enjoyment of food is what we all potentially share.

I think our Oshogatsu embodied this very well. The entire meal embraced the polyglot of cultures that had gathered together due to each person's connection to Japan or Japanese culture, whether by birth, marriage, or association with friends. I hope that in the New Year as always, that we can find a way to understand each other, if nowhere else, at the table.

1 comment:

  1. It looks interesting, but I would let the experts do the cooking, it looks very good, bob